Peter La Chapelle and Sharon Sekhon. A Guide to Writing History Papers & General College Writing (1998)

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1 1. How are history papers different from other papers? History papers should generally follow the guidelines for the standard college essay. Writers should lay out a clear argument in the introduction, support this argument in the body of their work and, finally, offer some sort of conclusion. History assignments, however, typically require some basic characteristics that one would not necessarily find in an essay for an English or Literature course. The History Paper Thesis. A good history paper usually focuses on some topic or issue from the past and hypothesizes about its meaning. This means taking a side. Remember, the past is up for interpretation. Something that happened 150 years ago may still have implications today and may require some interpreting. (Slavery in the realm of race relations, for instance.) A history paper thesis should not avoid controversy or contested events. Controversial topics often make the best papers. Setting the Scene. A good history paper should not expect the reader to know everything about the period of which he or she is writing. (It is unfair to expect the average person to be an expert on the Greenback Party or 14th century French heretics.) Because of this, it is usually a good idea to devote some space- - perhaps a paragraph or two after the introduction or a couple of sentences within each subsequent paragraph- - to setting the scene. What was happening at this time period? What social, political and economic forces were present and could have had some relevance on your topic? What were the important events, groups and people that shaped this time and this place? When did this happen and what are the important dates? Using Facts and Data to Support Your Argument. Not too long ago, students may have thought the study of history was nothing more than remembering important facts and dates. This does not hold true today. Facts and dates are still important, but a good history paper requires analysis. A paper full of facts and dates might make a great study sheet, but most history professors want to know what you make of all this information. Facts, dates and other data should be used within the body of the paper as support for your argument. Acknowledging the Worthy Opposition. When you write a good history paper, you will be entering into a historical debate. And like the debates you might have attended (or seen during an election year or on C- SPAN s coverage of the raucous House of Commons), it is necessary to acknowledge the argument of those who believe differently from you. Try to be fair. They may make one or two good points, and you, as a worthy debater, should be ready to acknowledge them. After making this acknowledgment, however, feel free to tear into their argument. Tell us why you are right and they are wrong. The Historical Conclusion. As with other papers, it is a good idea to sum things up at the end of the paper. You might also want to make some sort of speculation about what your argument means for the grander historical debate and for us living in today s world. History is not necessarily doomed to repeat itself, but events that occurred in the past might have some bearing on issues society is trying to grapple with today. 2. Guidelines for the standard college essay: The standard college essay is a composition with three sections: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. The Introduction: The section called the introduction contains the introductory paragraph. This paragraph has at least two parts: the lead (please explain a little) and the thesis statement. It has two functions: to attract readers 1

2 attention and to tell them what major points you will discuss in the next section of the essay. A good introduction should contain: 1. The topic, the issue, and the controversy. Readers need to know what subject you are writing about and why that subject is controversial. 2. Your position or thesis. Readers should also be told where you stand on this controversy. State your position clearly in the introduction or, for longer papers, within the first several paragraphs. 3. The significance of the topic. Readers need to know why a topic is important or significant. This answers the so what question a reader may pose to your paper. 4. Background of the topic. Use the introduction to present relevant background material and define important terms. However, more detailed background and definitions should be discussed in the body of the paper. 5. Attracting your reader. The introduction is a good place to interest your reader in what you have to say. Establishing the significance of your topic is a good way of doing this. Another technique is to challenge a prevailing view, present a new piece of information, or use an illustrative example or quotation. The Body: In the body of the essay, the writer develops the major points stated in the introduction. The number of major points determines the number of paragraphs in the body. Each major point becomes a topic sentence that is developed with some basic type of support- - example, detail, incident, fact, reason, and/or illustration. The Conclusion: This section of the essay contains the concluding paragraph. This paragraph has several functions, depending on the kind of essay you are writing. 1. It may summarize the information. 2. It may restate the thesis of the essay. 3. It may make a prediction. 4. It may offer the reader an in inductive generalization. 5. It may be a genuine deductive conclusion. 6. It may ask the reader to do something or to think in a certain way. 3. The research paper: A good research paper is structured much like the standard college essay, but should address a specific historical problem that requires historical research and analysis. Selecting a Topic. Writers often are at their best when they re inspired by their subject matter. (Charles Dickens would probably have had a difficult time writing Bleak House or Tale of Two Cities if he hadn t felt so strongly about eradicating poverty.) This should hold true for your own writing. Choose a topic that genuinely interests you and is related to your course. Be careful, however, to choose a topic that will fit the scope of your assignment. 2

3 In their book Writer s Guide: History, Henry J. Steffens and Mary Jane Dickerson suggest a useful method for narrowing down your topic: From your course syllabus, required readings, class notes, and journal entries, and your academic interests and background, make a list of possible topics that relate to the course. From this list, select the most interesting topic idea and make a list of everything you know about it- - make your list as exhaustive and extensive as possible. (98) Whatever method you use to select a topic, make sure you follow the professor s guidelines for the assignment. Framing Your Argument. The next step is to take your topic and restructure it into a question. If you re enamored with Juan Peron and his legacy in Argentina as your topic, you might want to ask: Why have the Peronists remained popular among Argentines for so long? Or if you are interested in early American women reformers, you might want to ask: Why did most 19th century suffragists hail from the middle class? This question is important. It should guide the rest of your research. Gathering Sources. Your next task is to answer this question with the materials you find during research. This is where the hard work starts. You will want to consult a variety of sources - - books, journals, old newspapers, etc. There are two basic sorts of sources: Primary Sources are those materials that come from or are directly associated with the time period you are studying. News clippings from the 1930s on the Lindbergh kidnapping are one example. The census of 1830 might be another. An interview of your grandmother about World War II might be a third. Secondary Sources are those materials that reflect a contemporary interpretation of the past. Make sure you keep track of what you find. This usually entails keeping notes in 8x5 notecards or in a notebook. You will want to write down page numbers, authors and titles so that you can return to your material if need be. 4. Reviewing books and articles: Many history professors assign book or article reviews as written assignments. These reviews perform a two- fold process. Not only do they indicate your understanding of the book or article, but reviews also demonstrate one s ability to think critically. To achieve this, you must be able to read the text critically before undertaking any writing. Reading Critically: Reading critically involves lucid engagement. Critical readers approach a text in a purposeful manner to best understand, assess, and analyze the material. The three- pass approach to critical reading is often the best way to achieve this goal. First Pass: Before attempting to generate a critical view of the reading material, readers must familiarize themselves with the subject discussed in the text. Assess what you may already know about the topic, 3

4 the time period, and the author. Then, the reader should briefly skim the text for a quick overview. Are there any immediately discernible hints that guide you in a possible direction? Look at chapter headings, subheadings, publishing information, and related information for clues. Second Pass: Use the second pass to read for the meaning and overall structure of the piece. Skim the article and write a short synopsis of what you have read. Be sure to include the reading s thesis and supporting points. Third Pass: After understanding the piece s thesis and supporting points, you should now be able to approach the text in a critical manner. The roles of evidence and argumentation become vital in this stage of your reading. Writing Reviews: The length of the review is dependent upon your original assignment. To get an idea of how reviews are written within the field, try looking up reviews in current historiographical periodicals such as The Historian, The American Historical Review, or the Journal of American History. Writer s Guide: History by Henry J. Steffens and Mary Jane Dickerson note that reviews should include the following: A short synopsis of the text that includes the author s point of view and major thesis. An evaluation of the argumentation and evidence the author employs. Placement of the text within its historiographical field. A comparison of the text with others in its related field(s). If appropriate, an assessment of the author s presentation. A concluding evaluation and overall recommendation for future readers of the text. For more information on critical reading and reviewing articles and books, please see Irene Clark s Writing in the Center. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, Henry J. Steffens and Mary Jane Dickerson s Writer s Guide: History. Lexington, D.C. Heath & Co., Family history projects: Why family history projects? Family history projects are usually assigned by professors to give you an idea of why the study of history is important. Often, history becomes a meaningless term in the eyes of some students because its relevancy to everyday issues is not thoroughly explored. The family history project is intended to demonstrate how historic events, beliefs, and practices have real and lasting effects upon your family. Thus, racist beliefs and prejudices, wars, changes in the economy, migration patterns and similar historic events should be judged in how they affected your family. Family history projects are also assigned to give you a taste of how historians work. Often, we do not understand the complexity involved with searching out the truth through fragmentary evidence. The questions centering around the definition of truth, the plausibility of historical objectivity, and whose history will also arise when historians study the past. 4

5 Gathering Information The Family Tree: The breadth and depth of your family history project will be dependent upon the assignment. Nevertheless, most projects do require the inclusion of a family tree in the project. A good place to begin your family project is in the creation of the family tree. The information available in the family tree will give you a good idea of what types of questions you will propose to your interviewees later on. The family tree should include genealogical information such as dates and places of birth, full names, and the date of death or current age of each person. Grounding Yourself in the Past: Read appropriate chapters in your textbook and pertinent local histories that focus on the times and places in which your subjects lived. From the family tree you have constructed, you should be able to discern prompts that will guide your study. These will make you familiar with the major events that may have shaped your subjects decisions or attitudes. Search Out Sources: Obtain as many familial sources as possible. As you will see, the type of evidence you gather will direct your project. Such sources may include letters, diaries, family Bibles, pictures, and similar objects. Use these sources in conjunction with your family tree to create clear, focused questions for your interviews. Interviewing: Interviewing is often seen as the most difficult process in making a family history project. Not only do you have to get your respondent to speak openly about their personal history, you must also critically assess the answers you will hear. Please find the following tips that may help you in the interviewing process. Be tactful and respect the privacy of your respondent. Use your interviewing questions as a flexible guideline. In other words, allow your respondent to do most of the talking and use your questions as guiding prompts. Use a variety of questions. Use open- ended questions to start discussions and specific questions to gather information. Keep your questions clear and to the point. Listen carefully. Not only will this help gain the confidence of your interviewee, but it will also help you assess what you are hearing. Consider using a tape recorder. Determine whether the information you hear reflects a pattern in history or contradicts one. Try to determine whether your subject is providing reliable data. Interview more than once. After your initial interview, judge whether you have garnered enough appropriate information. If not, create a new set of questions and repeat the process. Analysis: Review all of your data (textbook information, family evidence, oral histories) and try to discern pattern and themes from the information. Are there any recurring themes that appear? Judge which were the most important factors in shaping your family history and use these as an organizational tool in the structure of your paper. In short, your evidence (family sources and oral histories) should direct your paper, and your textbook information should aid in the contextualization of the data. 5

6 Writing: In addition to following these guidelines, good history papers usually undergo several re- writes. Depending on your time constraints, re- read and revise your paper as much as possible to create a clear, well- defined argument and analysis. For further help on this topic please see David E. Kyvig and Myron and A. Marty s Your Family History: A Handbook for Research and Writing: A Handbook for Research and Writing. Arlington Heights, Harlan Davidson, Inc., Documenting sources/style: To cite or not to cite. Citations are an important part of writing any paper. They are the recognized means of giving credit to the scholarship that you build your argument on and acknowledging the data you collect. There are two general rules for using citation: 1.) Citations should always be used when you borrow ideas, facts, figures or actual quotations from other authors. 2.) Citations are not needed when you are making your own analysis of those facts or ideas. Take for example the following passage: A. Philip Randolph organized 8,000 African Americans into his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids during the late 1920s. 1 Randolph's work is typical of the grass- roots black labor movement that sprung up as a response to the white unions indifference to African Americans. Remember: footnotes should always follow a sentence or series of sentences that borrow ideas or facts from an author even if you do not use the author's exact words (as in the first sentence). Direct quotations should always be footnoted. Citation styles. History professors generally prefer two styles of citation: standard historical citation and MLA. It is best to check with your professor to see which she or he prefers. An example of each is outlined below: Standard historical citation (Chicago Manual of Style): A. Philip Randolph organized 8,000 African Americans into his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids during the late 1920s. 1 (see footnote below) MLA (Modern Languages Association): A. Philip Randolph organized 8,000 African Americans into his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids during the late 1920s. (Franklin, 382) (author's last name, page number) What appears above is a simplified, standard style for citing books on the first reference. For more detail about citing books, periodicals and other sources, see Walter S. Achtert and Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Style Manual; John Grossman, ed., The Chicago Manual of Style or another style resource your instructor recommends. Bibliographies and Works Cited Pages. A good history paper should end with a bibliography or a works cited page, which lists all sources used in the paper (including class textbooks). Generally, bibliographies and works cited pages are quite similar: they both list all of the works you cite in alphabetical order 1 John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (McGraw- Hill: New York, 1994),

7 according to author s last name. A bibliography, however, can refer to additional works that influenced your writing but are not specifically cited in your paper. A works cited page consists of only those citations referring to information you note in the text. If using MLA style, construct the "Works Cited" page so that the author's last name will lead a reader right to the correct book. Whatever method you choose, make sure your annotation is logical and that the works cited are easily identifiable. Books on the "Works Cited" or Bibliography page should include: 1.) Name of author(s) 2.) Name of book (underlined or in italics) 3.) Name of publisher 5.) City in which published 6.) Year in which published Periodical and journal articles should include: 1.) Name of author(s) 2.) Title of article (in quotation marks) 3.) Name of journal or periodical (underlined or in italics) 4.) Date and volume number of journal or periodical 5.) Page number(s) on which the article appears Internet citations should include: 1.) Name of author(s) 2.) Name of article in quotation marks 3.) Name of on- line source (web page, listserve, database, etc.) [e.g. In C Net. ] 4.) Volume, date and reference numbers pertaining to on- line source 5.) Mode of obtaining information (INTERNET or listserve address, for example.) Again, see the Chicago Manual of Style and The MLA Style Handbook for greater detail on annotating all of these sources. 7

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